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Comfort In, Those in Need of Comfort; Dump Out

By Karen Austin

Life’s challenges tend to overwhelm me unless I make a conscious decision to stand back and gain some perspective.  One of the tools that has helped me to do this is the Ring Theory explained by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman in their opinion piece, published on February 3, 2013, by the Los Angeles Times.

Silk is a psychologist, and her husband, Goldman, is a legal arbitrator and mediator. In their work, they have observed that people who are suffering are better served if their support system offers only comfort to them and not their own grief about the afflicted person.  Those in a supportive role need to “dump out” or process their difficult feelings with people who are more distant from the person who is wrestling with a major life challenge.

For example, if I have a friend whose house was recently damaged by a tornado, flood, or fire, I do not serve her if I process my grief about her damaged home to her directly. Without thinking, I might ask her (usually indirectly) to comfort me because I dump on her my sorrow about her damaged home. I might be projecting fear that my home might someday be similarly damaged.  Instead, I should focus on her as the person with the greatest needs, offering her comfort and concealing my own sorrow, anger, and other chaotic and difficult emotions.  I should turn “outward” to another friend who doesn’t know the person with the severely damaged home and ask that friend to comfort me and help me process my feelings of fear and sorrow.

When I was living in Kansas a few years ago, I had a friend who was in kidney failure, but her medical team was unsure of the cause, making treatment difficult. I don’t do well in an information vacuum.  I did recognize that I was throwing off a lot of negative energy. Consequently, I only made very short (3 to 5 minute) visits at the hospital. She had other friends who were better equipped to sit with her and comfort her during the early days of her symptoms, testing, and provisional diagnoses. Instead, I got the keys to her house so that I could take out the trash and clean. Once she had a diagnosis and a treatment plan, I was able to compose myself enough to comfort my friend.  And I expressed my concern about my Kansas friend to my mother-in-law in Oklahoma and my former neighbor in West Virginia.

Identifying people who are on the outer circles can be a little tricky. For example, I have a friend from West Virginia who was recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer that is moving into other organs.  After blurting out one swear work from the shock of the news, I pivoted to be supportive, mirroring the underlying faith and hope of my friend’s outlook.

After I finished the phone call with my friend, I then called my mother so that I could display my sorrow. My mother is only acquainted with my friend since they live 2,500 miles apart. I forgot, however, that in 1964, my maternal grandmother died of cancer. I wasn’t thinking that through, and my mother burst into tears, remembering her own mother’s suffering. Even though my grandmother’s illness took place over a half-century ago, I should have remembered the lasting effect that had on my mother.  Clearly, I need to be a little more thoughtful about who will offer me comfort when I am sad about my West Virginia friend.

Although Silk and Goldman do not describe this resource, I also find comfort in turning towards the Divine through prayer and meditation. Yes, suffering during mortality is horrible. But I also find comfort in taking an eternal perspective. I cannot say that I am always peaceful and calm. I find that I vacillate between grief and sorrow about the challenges that mortality brings. But I find relief and insight by thinking about the role of the Holy Ghost, priesthood blessings, the covenant of baptism, the taking the sacrament, and temple ordinances.

The book of Alma reminds us that we also vow to “comfort those in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). If we can ground ourselves in an eternal perspective and invite the Holy Ghost to bolster us, we can be better equipped to support others.  And when we fall apart, we can turn to our fellow saints for support from another mortal who can offer us a hug or a helping hand.  We cannot escape the challenges of mortality, but we can comfort each other—in ways that require us to use discernment and a little bit of self-discipline.




About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

2 thoughts on “Comfort In, Those in Need of Comfort; Dump Out”

  1. I had heard this theory but didn’t know the origin. It has helped me immeasurably and even making me realize today I am making demands on a dear friend moving out of state who only has a 30 day escrow after living here 30 years. I want to go to lunch, to dinner, but she simply doesn’t have time to help me process the grief of her leaving.
    I also thought of it last year as both my sisters said things to me after my mother’s death, that I was just too tender for. Yes, they were grieving too but I was too raw to deal with their complex emotions. They needed to talk to a friend, not me.
    This is an extremely helpful framework. Thanks for sharing here.


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